Say this much for My Morning Jacket: The Kentucky rock band doesn't seem to stay in the same musical place for long.
The group broke through to the mainstream with 2003's "It Still Moves," a coldly beautiful evocation of Neil Young's more atmospheric side, before graduating to artier rock textures with 2005's "Z." Then came 2008's "Evil Urges," a detour into something funkier.
So it is that the members don't even know what's happening next, especially now. My Morning Jacket is coming off a yearlong hiatus, restarting operations with a tour with New Orleans' venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The tandem plays Cary's Booth Amphitheatre tonight, and work on a new album is scheduled to begin this year.
"Yeah, we're taking a two-week jaunt to knock the dust off the bones," says drummer Patrick Hallahan, calling from his home in Louisville. "We always try to put together something that's not just a bunch of bands, but a show. We try to soundscape it, so it's nice to have someone completely different from us. That way it's more of a showcase rather than loud music for five straight hours.
"As for the next record, right now there's no plan set in stone," he adds. "We're just starting this like every other album, with a clean palette, and we'll pursue whatever interests us. We try to never make the same album twice. It starts with Jim [James] writing demos, bringing in songs stripped down to just him and acoustic guitar, and that determines the direction things usually go."
Pause that refreshes
Adding another layer of unconventionality, My Morning Jacket chose a seemingly odd time to take a break - on the heels of their most successful album. "Evil Urges" landed the group on "Saturday Night Live" and in Billboard's Top 10 for the first time. But given how hard the band had been working the previous six years, putting My Morning Jacket up on the blocks for a while was necessary.
"We've been doing this long enough that we know when we're getting a little burnt out," Hallahan says. "It was just time to call it quits, but not permanently. We just needed a break. But it wasn't a vacation. Everybody was into side projects the whole time, and last year was busier for me than most years with My Morning Jacket. But now we're getting back to the band. It's like a reunion, almost."
During the mother band's downtime, Hallahan did session work and played on the solo album by Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach. My Morning Jacket frontman James added his vocal touch to other albums, including the latest from Preservation Hall Jazz Band and singer/songwriter Laura Veirs. James' lush vocal ambience is one of the most distinctive sounds in rock - Veirs calls it "that high howly thing" - and it's part of My Morning Jacket's experimentation with airy sounds.
"The last few albums, we've really tried to carve out space by taking out sounds that don't need to be there all the time," Hallahan says. "So when those sounds do come in, they sound a lot bigger. It's an ongoing study in trying to master the creation of space between instruments. It comes from miking strategies we use. If we're trying to create a big spacious sound, we'll mike more of the room. If it's tighter or more microscopic, a tighter miking style is used for that."
Generally speaking, James brings in spare versions of songs he wrote on acoustic guitar, which the rest of the band fleshes out in arrangements that can radically change them. But there are occasional exceptions, songs that the rest of the band insists go on-record as is.
The most recent example is "Highly Suspicious," a rather silly funk knock-off on "Evil Urges." Possibly the goofiest thing the band has ever recorded, "Highly Suspicious" stands in stark contrast to the somberness of the rest of My Morning Jacket's catalog.
"Yeah, we really couldn't touch that one," Hallahan says, and laughs. "It was just too one-of-a-kind. We told Jim, 'We're doing this one exactly like that.' Him on the drum machine, making it up as he went along, that was great. I guess it was time for some lighthearted whimsy. We needed that after some of the other songs."